Smelling the Wine

It is said that a familiar smell can conjure up our most vivid memories, and in fact, our sense of smell is our most important sense when it comes to tasting wine.  Even though our sense of smell is not nearly as sensitive as a dog’s, our nose can tell us more about the wine than just looking at it or even tasting it.

What we smell in a wine is dependent upon our individual life experiences.  If we have never smelled or tasted a mango then we will most likely not be able to pick that out of the wine’s aroma.  It’s also been noted that a person raised outside North America will describe a wine much differently than a person born and raised here. So, if someone mentions an aroma in a wine that you can’t pick up at all, don’t worry.  Everyone is different and we all have different data stored in our brains from which we rely on.

The First Sniff:

The first smell of a wine should be done with a quick sniff (before you’ve swirled the glass), which will quickly tell you if there are any foul odors indicating a faulty bottle.  Swirling the wine before this initial sniff will only enhance any nastiness and be even more unpleasant.  If the wine smells like vinegar, musty basement, moldy cardboard, or wet dog (among other things), take it back to where you bought it for a refund or exchange.

If there are no nasty odors and the wine seems healthy (not faulty), try to pick out some of the delicate aromas that may have emerged from the wine.

Swirl the Wine:

Now you should swirl the wine in your glass to release more aromas.  For beginners, a simple way to do this is to place the wine glass on the table, place your hand on the base of the glass, and then move the glass in a circular motion.  The wine should start to swirl around and move up the sides of the glass.  Put your nose to the glass and inhale all the wine has to offer.

Identifying Aromas:

Concentrate, and try to identify some of the aromas.  The more you practice, the more you will be able to pick out.

Wines really can smell of raspberries, apples, cherries, and green peppers.  No, they don’t actually have these fruits and vegetables in them, but they do share many of the same chemical compounds with these things, which make them smell similar.  For example, methoxypyrazines are the compounds that gives the green pepper aroma in a Bordeaux and the tinned asparagus and gooseberry aromas in some Sauvignon Blanc.

Aroma and Flavour Characteristics:

Below is a list of aromas to get you started.  This same list can be used to identify the flavours of the wine once you have taken a sip.

Floral: honeysuckle, chamomile, roses, violet, blossoms, lavender, acacia, jasmine, etc.


Fruit: apple, gooseberry, pear, grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange, peach, apricot, banana, lychee, mango, melon, passionfruit, pineapple, strawberry, raspberry, cherry, blackcurrant, cassis, plum, blueberry, black berry, cranberry, etc.


Dried Fruit: prune, fig, raisin, dried apricot, dried berries, fruitcake, sultana, etc.



Spice:  cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, black/white pepper, juniper, licorice, aniseed, etc.


Herbal: eucaluptus, mint, fennel, dill, bay leaf, basil, etc.


Vegetal:  grass, asparagus, green or bell pepper, cabbage, pine, tea, mint, hay, green/black olives, etc.


Dairy:  butter, cheese, cream, yogurt, condensed milk, caramel, butterscotch, etc.



Yeast: biscuit, bread, toast, lees, yeast, dough,  etc.



Nutty: almond, walnut, hazelnut, marzipan, etc.


Animal: leather, game, meaty, smoked meat, damp fur, cat’s pee, bacon, etc.


Mineral:  earth, stone, flint, chalk, gravel, etc.



Oak: vanilla, butterscotch, toast, cedar, charred wood, smoke, chocolate, roasted coffee, cloves, coconut, sandalwood, cigar box, spice (clove, nutmeg, allspice), toasty, charcoal, mocha, etc.


This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many other aromas and flavours that can be found in wine.  The more you practice, the more aromas and flavours you will be able to add to this list.

Other Aspects to Note:


In addition to identifying a few aromas, you should also note the intensity of aromas.  Are the aromas delicate, light, intense, strong, pungent, or almost non-existent?

Some wines are more intense than others because they are made with more aromatic grapes.  Wines made from Gewurztraminer and Viognier will be much more aromatic than a wine made from Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet).  These more neutral grapes will never make wines of high intensity.

Some good quality wines may be “closed”, that is they are not showing intense aromas at this time. The wine may not be ready to drink and the aromas may be in a “dumb” phase. With a bit more bottle age the aromas may eventually come alive and the wine may explode with complexity. If you are having a difficult time finding any aromas in the wine, place your hand over the opening of the glass and give it a shake (You may want to try this with water first!).  Shaking it should wake it up a bit.

However, a lack of intensity in a wine may also mean that it is a mass produced wine made from overcropped and dilute grapes.


Complexity in a wine is a sign of quality.  The more aromas and characteristics in the wine, the more complex it is.  Some wines are so complex that they are constantly changing in your glass, with each smell revealing something different.  There are some wines I would be content to just sniff all evening without even taking a sip.  Some wines make you weak at the knees with just one whiff.  These are complex wines.

This is not to say that wines without this complexity are not enjoyable.  There are many wines with very simple aromas that can be very pleasant indeed.  Sometimes you don’t want to think too much about the wine.  Sometimes you just want to enjoy simple fruity aromas and flavours.

Go back to How to Taste Wine – Introduction

Go back to Looking at a Wine

Go to Tasting the Wine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s